Thursday, July 1, 2010

Goslington by Fred Kitchen

I just read Goslington: Portrait of a Village by Fred Kitchen, published in 1965 by J. M. Dent & Sons in London. Kitchen was born in 1891 and grew up in Yorkshire. At thirteen, two years after his father's death, his mother put him to work; he continued to support her until he married. Though he spent thirteen years as a miner, he returned to farm work and stayed with that for the rest of his working life. He'd always loved literature, which set him apart from other farm laborers. In 1933 he joined the Worker's Educational Association, which encouraged him to begin writing, and around 1940 he published his first book, the autobiographical Brother to the Ox.

He evidently went on writing and publishing for the rest of his life; he would have been 74 when Goslington was published. In 1980 (or 1981?) a British TV adaptation of Brother to the Ox aired; maybe someday there will be a revival of interest in Kitchen's work and that program will find its way to DVD.

It was thanks to Raymond Williams's The Country and the City that I first learned about Fred Kitchen. Williams devoted more than a page to his discussion of Kitchen and Brother to the Ox, more space than he gave to many better-known writers. And though Kitchen is not, as Richard Hoggart would later complain peevishly in The Tyranny of Relativism, one of the "Everests" of English lit, he was quite a good writer and deserves to be remembered and read.

So far I haven't found any reference to later books, or to the date of Kitchen's death, so perhaps Goslington was his final work. The subtitle describes it well: it's a portrait of an English village, probably set between the world wars, but meant to be timeless. I'd been reading George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen just before I read Goslington, and reading Kitchen was like being cast back into the nineteenth century, both in his style and the kind of story he tells. (Kitchen apparently loved Dickens and Eliot.) The village revolves around the established Anglican church, the dissenting chapels, and especially the public house, whose habitues are the novel's Greek chorus, commenting on the other townspeople and their doings and scandals. Eventually a plot emerges as a farm boy and a serving girl meet and starting walking out together. They marry happily, watched over, abetted and protected by the old men at the pub, but the village as a whole is the protagonist of the book. Readers who are interested in rural English life (as many Americans as well as Britons are), and who are lucky enough to find a copy of Goslington in their library (not even the university library had it; I had to order it online), will probably find Fred Kitchen worth their while. I think I'll be looking for more of his work myself.